Tag Archives: illustration

Building Better Mountains

Making Magnificent Mountains

Coal Belly, my current project, is a sprawling steampunk-ish adventure novel that spans the mountains, cliffs, and ridges in a world of interlocking rivers. To keep track of characters and locations, I began maintaining a map. The story takes places in a technological era similar to the post-reconstruction United States, around the 1890s. Because of that, I wanted my map to capture the styles of maps from that period. The sort of thing a cowboy would have in their saddlebag. Which meant I spent some time on Old Maps Online.

While researching, I noticed there was a shift in the late 1800s in how cartographers drew mountains. Earlier in the century, most mountains were rendered as illustrations. Cartographers would draw little adorable ranges as a representative of the mountains. It’s a common enough style, and one I’m sure you’ll recognize. You can see this style in this map from 1832.

Map of the Western State (Detail), Daniel Adams, 1832
Western States (Detail), Daniel Adams, 1832

This is a standard approach and one appropriated by most fantasy cartographers today. It’s a style I’ve used in past maps. It works well and definitely lends a touch of antiquity to a piece. But, Coal Belly is more modern than that. When I started looking at mountains in maps made later in the century, I noticed there was a shift. Cartographers moved away from the illustrated ranges and towards an early topographical style. You can see the shift in the maps below.

United States (Detail), David Burr, 1875
United States (Detail), David Burr, 1875
Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Detail), A. J. Johnson, 1886
Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Detail), A. J. Johnson, 1886
Kentucky, Tennessee (Detail), Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1886
Kentucky, Tennessee (Detail), Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1886

It’s a fascinating change and one I really liked. Since most of my own fantastical cartography work is done in Adobe Illustrator, I began experimenting with creating brushes. Each of the maps above was drawn by hand so recreating a similar feel took a lot of experimentation. Different brush styles and widths. Eventually, I settled on pattern brushes based off a series of random strokes. I feel like I got really close. You can see my handiwork below.

Sample of my 19th Century Mountains brushes in use.
Sample of my 19th Century Mountains brushes in use.

I made twenty brushes, with a variety of line styles and densities. They tend to work best as separate strokes and then tightly grouped together. And because they’re vector based they can be adjusted for any size project. There’s a lot of ways to adjust the overlaps for corners and such. They’re quite versatile and can be blended and combined in numerous ways.

Quick sample using the brushes — with more time I'd focus on typography and color to give the map an antique look
Another quick sample made in Illustrator and Photoshop using the brushes

I ended up scrapping these mountains for the Coal Belly map, as they interfered with the map’s legibility, especially on eReaders. But, I think they would be the perfect fit for the right project. Which is why I’m giving them away for free. Just click the download button below and you can use these mountains brushes in your own project.

Download 19th Century Mountain Brushes

No Illustrator? Download the Photoshop Brush Set1

These brushes are designed for Adobe Illustrator and are licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 International License. So they’re FREE to use for personal or commercial work, and I’m not looking for any attribution. That said, I would love to see how others end up using these brushes. So please reach out and let me know! I’m not looking for any payment, but if you want to support me consider buying one of my books.


1 It needs to be mentioned that the Photoshop brushes are significantly limited compared to the Illustrator version. These brushes were designed to work along paths so the mountains will look hand-drawn. While you can use the brushes in Photoshop there will be limitations. They’ll look more stamped and less custom.


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Visual Inspiration by Yuri Shwedoff

Visual Inspiration: Yuri Shwedoff

It’s been too long since I’ve done a visual inspiration post on here, so let’s fix that. I’ve long been a fan of the stunning atmospheric work of Russian artist Yuri Shwedoff, but when a friend of mine mentioned him today, I figured it’d be the perfect time to share his work with you. (So, you can all thank Chris.)

There is something very evocative about Shwedoff’s work and it’s more than his incredible compositions. Each piece tells a story and leaves the viewer hungering for more. That’s why I find it so inspiring. You can hear the howl of the wind moan across vast expanses. You’re there as his figures stare at immense landscapes of ancient monoliths. You can feel the energy present as an unlikely warrior steels herself for the coming of a terrible monster. It’s incredible work.

Dragons by Yrui Shwedoff
Dragons by Yuri Shwedoff
The Sun by Yuri Shwedoff
The Sun by Yuri Shwedoff
Werewolf by Yuri Shwedoff
Werewolf by Yuri Shwedoff
Excalibur by Yuri Shwedoff
Excalibur by Yuri Shwedoff (Also, featured at the top of this post._

Shwedoff is active all over the internet and I highly recommend following him. Start by checking him out on Twitter and Instagram. You can buy your favorite piece from his shop on Society6 and you can also support his work via Paetron and get exclusive HD images, process videos, and PSDs. If you want to see more of his work check it out at Behance or at Art Station. There are a lot of great pieces, it’s hard to pick a favorite. If I had to decide I’d probably settle on Dragons (featured above). There’s a lot going in that single image and clearly more to the story. Which of Yuri Shwedoff’s work is your favorite?

Cybill by John Martel

Fan Art Highlight – John Martel

Over the weekend I was able to watch the evolution of some fan art from illustrator John Martel. John took a crack at Cybill, the monstrosity from my book The Stars Were Right. Since the book has been out a while I think we’re past the moratorium for spoilers but to be on the safe side I hide his illustrations beneath a break.

If you haven’t read the book yet you can nab it for less than $2.99, however if you have continue onward…

Continue reading Fan Art Highlight – John Martel

Bell Caravan Patch

Bell Caravans Patches Are Now Available

Show your loyalty to the company with this three-inch black and white Bell Caravans patch. Put it on your jacket, your bag, your keff, or whatever you want! Patches are only $5.00 and are available in my store. Get yours today!

Bell Caravan Patch Now Available Bell Caravans Patch Now Available In My Store

The logo was based on a concept by Ray Frenden and illustrated by the talented Sean Cumiskey. Long time readers will remember that Sean did some amazing fan art for The Stars Were Right last year. After I saw it, I contacted him and asked if I could use the logo above the door for a Russel & Sons bookmark and he agreed. I loved his work so much that I hired him to work up the Bell Caravans logo. He hit the ball out of the park and the result is this incredible patch.

Check out more of Sean’s work at his website. He is available for freelance projects, and is open to commissions, so seriously consider hiring him if you’re looking for an illustrator on your own projects. I cannot recommend him enough.

Visual Inspiration: Kuldar Leement

Crusaders (Detail) by Kuldar Leement
Crusaders (Detail) by Kuldar Leement

It’s been a while since I have posted a visual inspiration post, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been inspired! Those of you who follow me on Pinterest see me post things almost daily, but I know there a lot of you who just read my blog. So I am overdue.

My friend Ryan O’Nan—who is a marvelous illustrator in his own right (and available for hire!)—shared the work of Kuldar Leement. Ethereal landscapes, strange figures, and gorgeously rendered city scenes dominate his work. Each telling a story of their own. His use of space is what really stands out, in many pieces he creates a vastness that is somehow also very intimate. My favorites below:

Golden Witch Doctor by Kuldar Leement
Golden Witch Doctor by Kuldar Leement
Euphoria by Kuldar Leement
Euphoria by Kuldar Leement
Brofist From God by Kuldar Leement
Brofist From God by Kuldar Leement
Never Quiet by Kuldar Leement
Never Quiet by Kuldar Leement

Amazing work, right? I could post so much more of his work, but you should really just check it out for yourself. See more of Kuldar’s illustrations at his site: http://www.kuldarleement.eu/ —  good stuff. I hope you found it as inspiring as I did.

Gaze into my eyes…

Over the weekend I was blown away when my talented friend Dave Bastian posted an amazing portrait of me he created. I had to share it here:

K. M. Alexander by Dave Bastian

See what I mean!? Part magician, part count, part The Phantom of the Opera, all amazing. Not going to lie, I think Dave might be onto something, I’m now seriously inspired to start dressing like this every day.

You can see more of Dave’s amazing portraits on his instagram feed (there’s a ton more) or check out more of his work at his website: http://davebastian.com. Thank you so much Dave! I’m so flattered by this, didn’t expect it at all.